Historian Breaks Down Why Betsy DeVos Can't Be Compared to a Civil Rights Icon

February 14th 2017

Danielle DeCourcey

When Donald Trump's Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was blocked from entering a public school last week by a handful of protesters, her supporters quickly drew a connection to the racist attempts of Southern leaders to block de-segregation efforts in the 1960s. 

On Tuesday, a cartoon that quickly went viral took that historically-suspect comparison one step further. 

In a clear callback of the famous Norman Rockwell painting of Ruby Bridges, the first black child to attend an all-white school in the South after the end of segregation, Glenn McCoy's cartoon depicts DeVos being accompanied by police guards on her way to a schoolhouse.

The six-year-old had to be escorted to her New Orleans school in 1960 by U.S. deputy Marshals for her own protection, while thousands of white Americans protested her attendance. 

In a tweet thread on Tuesday, Princeton University history professor and author Kevin M. Kruse explained why comparing DeVos to Bridges is "wrong headed." 

Kruse starts by pointing out the DeVos is a billionaire and cabinet member of Trump administration, while Bridges was a black child living in the racial turmoil of the time. 

He then tweeted that the opposition Bridges faced was far greater than the opposition DeVos is facing. 

Parents had white students boycott the school because of integration and violent protests erupted that Kruse called "racial terrorism." 

He concluded that comparing a "handful of protesters" to the opposition against Bridges is an unfair comparison. 

Another difference between DeVos and Bridges is that resistance to DeVos is based on the fact that she is now a public official with a divisive history on education issues. 

DeVos' confirmation as secretary of education was controversial, partly because of her record of advocacy for charter schools in her home state of Michigan. Generally, charter schools are funded with public money, but are not under the same regulations as public schools, and they are often privately run. The state has more charter schools that it ever has, but the quality of education ranks among the worst in the country, with some of the poorest communities saddled with the worst schools, according to a December 2016 report by Politico. 

DeVos and her supporters have argued that charters and also voucher programs, programs that allow parents to use federal funds to send their children to private schools, allow students to attend schools outside of their district. 
“Let the education dollars follow each child, instead of forcing the child to follow the dollars," DeVos reportedly said during a March 2015 speech. "This is pretty straightforward. And it’s how you go from a closed system to an open system that encourages innovation. People deserve choices and options." 

President-elect Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos.

However, opponents of DeVos and her encouragement of private influence in public schools, say these programs take money from public schools without significantly better results, and can lead to segregated schools

A piece by Stephen Henderson an editor at the Detroit Free Press accused DeVos of pushing a political agenda with little qualifications to improve public education. 

"This deeply dysfunctional educational landscape — where failure is rewarded with opportunities for expansion and 'choice' means the opposite for tens of thousands of children — is no accident," he wrote in December of 2016. "It was created by an ideological lobby that has zealously championed free-market education reform for decades, with little regard for the outcome."

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